Tips for Writers: Always Tell the Truth, Even When You’re Lying

'Vintage Words' by Thom Milkovic (unsplash.com)
Photo by Thom Milkovic

Most of us are familiar with the Blind Men and the Elephant story. Its point is twofold:

  • No one has a complete picture, even if they were “there in person,” but…
  • Everyone knows what they think happened, and what it meant to them

This is true in both fiction and non-fiction.

True, journalists, as non-fiction writers, are supposed to render facts as objectively as they can. But honest, objective fact-finders know that even after interviewing eyewitnesses (“blind men”) their summary will inevitably fall short of “complete.” Hence, “rioting occurred” is more accurate than “the protest turned into a riot” (did everyone riot? Were there no objectors?). And “many wept” is more accurate than “there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience” (did no one roll their eyes and visit the loo?). There’s no such thing as a complete picture, and so, in essence, there’s no such thing as non-fiction.

There are only degrees of fiction.

Even the best non-fiction contains lies (unavoidable fiction), and all good fiction contains truth (appropriated facts). This isn’t a weakness, it’s an invitation to present your readers with life in all of its messy, intriguing glory, to make them think rather than do all the thinking for them. Don’t writersplain. Nuances, uncertainties, misunderstandings, conflicts, reconciliations and unresolved issues are all part of a good story—whether faithfully reported, or artfully invented.

If you report, tell us what each of the blind men “saw.” If you invent, show us what each of your characters believes, and then let the sparks fly when their perceptions rub up against one another. Allow your readers to agonize over the fact that, like the blind men in the old tale, each of the characters is a little bit right and a little bit (or a lot) wrong.

But most all, no matter what type of lies you tell…

Always tell the truth.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
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41 Responses to Tips for Writers: Always Tell the Truth, Even When You’re Lying

  1. Yep, I think I agree. We’re all biased, we’re all subjective, and our perception shapes our storytelling.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. After struggling with it and taking a couple of summer workshops about “literary nonfiction,” I write narrative nonfiction (I’m not “literary”), but I’m upfront about it. But my readers know I couldn’t have witnessed the day the three youngest Wilson brothers got a ride in a biplane before school, even though I wrote a small scene about a little family history my mother had described. Guess I’m finally comfortable with the dichotomy. I know one woman who wrote “memoir” but later admitted that about a third of it really happened!

    Liked by 6 people

    • The line between creative nonfiction and fiction is very, very thin, but as long as the reader knows the “rules of engagement,” for the writing, it doesn’t really matter as long as the emotional truth is there.

      Liked by 6 people

    • mitchteemley says:

      Yep and yep. From the ultimate memoirist: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” ~Marcel Proust

      Liked by 1 person

      • Especially since it’s someone from the next generation writing them. The mentor who wrote the foreword to the new book says I’m doing “heritage ministry.” Something else to wrap my thinking around, as from where I sit, I’m just writing family stories. lump in throat

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great advice. Great post, Mitch. God bless!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Can you elaborate on “writersplain”? (Kidding!) That’s gotta be both the newest word for the urban dictionary, and the oldest writing pitfall-lesson of any who’ve put pen to paper!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Ray Carbone says:

    Thanks, Mitch – This is good. Some of my family members like to tell me (after a career as a journalist) that “Journalism is dead.”… And, I’m more convinced than ever that they don’t really understand what journalism is. Even when I try my best to be “flat” in reporting a story as simple as a Christmas fair, I know that I’m emphasizing certain aspects of an event – and, isn’t that, in some ways, what Freedom of the Press is about? — Thanks again for your support.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow! This was not only PROFOUND, but perfectly timed. My husband and daughter were just having a discussion, where each of them had a very different perspective. This is the perfect explanation of the conflicts we have over what “really happened.” If more people understood this, I think we’d be better listeners, more open to discussion instead of butting heads.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. (May I share/repost this?)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. AppophiaM says:

    Wow, this is such an interesting post especially after having finished reading “Based on a true story” by Delphine where that debate arises… Truth and fiction. And still boogled over whether that was a true story or not … Anyway, saying this is a timely post to go with whatever mindfuck that book left me with.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for sharing this. I needed it! I was wrestling with this very thing while writing a story as I remember it and other parties may not recall it the same way. This helps.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Someone once said “Telling the truth to someone who is emotionally unready to hear it is worse than telling a lie. You inadvertently slow their progress toward the maturity necessary to grasp the truth.” Sometimes, I ask myself if “administering” the truth is actually a loving thing to do. If you tell the truth in order to boost your ego or prove a point, but it causes pain or confusion…or violence or regression, silence may be preferable.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. …and here’s another thing to consider. One definition of the word “paltering” is the act of using the truth to deceive.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Your post reminds me of a book that I read a number of years ago, which I think you might enjoy. This book had me laughing out loud, but it also told a good deal of truth about human nature

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great advice … and a great title!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Every writer has a story to tell, even if they’ve never lived the experience. They can give their view on if their experience can explain that topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. JOY journal says:

    Another comment from a journalist: This is absolutely true. Perception is each source’s reality.

    My favorite technique at this point in my career is to collect three view points and do long-format news analysis. I’m choosing the topic, which is subjective from the start. But, I try to keep a balance by introducing why they are in the story and then just let the sources “talk,” using as many quotes as possible. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Lisa Beth says:

    Wow, such good points here, thanks Mitch!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Mary Sweeney says:

    These are very good points, Mitch. I loved some of the comments as well. I was thinking of Bill and I as I was reading this. When he was writing his book, there were some things I didn’t remember or saw it from a different perspective. It’s hard to remember details from 24 years ago, but we both remembered the emotion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mitchteemley says:

      Indeed, Mary. I’m currently working piecemeal on my memoirs, and am constantly aware of just how subjective such an undertaking is. “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” ~Marcel Proust

      Like

  18. Yes, indeed.  Like most other neat-looking dichotomies, fiction vs nonfiction is really an oversimplification.  Useful in many contexts, but dangerous if taken too seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Chandra Lynn says:

    Love this. Bookmarking it for my Creative Nonfiction students.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. alinicmch3 says:

    Someone once said, “every good lie holds some truth”. I couldn’t agree more.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. You know, this really makes sense. I’ve experienced it myself. Like if I lie or talk about something I don’t know about, it takes away my validity because I look stupid.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Great advice keep sharing your blogs
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    Liked by 1 person

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